Another Theme for Spring: Presence

Surveying the smoldering ruins of academic Twitter this week, one thing I observed several times (not that this is anything new) is that pedagogical main-character-of-the-day controversies—e.g., a controversy this week over whether it’s ableist for a professor to refuse to distribute a full course syllabus before the first day of class—rarely seem to be examples of useful good-faith disagreement about actual teaching practices in a complex emergent environment. These controversies tend instead to feed on sloganeering and hyperbole. They exemplify mainly how people want to be seen publicly as teachers by other academics who will never know anything about their real-life teaching or its results.

Artist’s impression of a collection of academics examining each other’s tweets for signs of carceral pedagogy

Last week, I wrote briefly about my struggle to identify potential adjustments to my teaching approach that might best help several dozen specific students during the new spring semester. Well, as of yesterday, all my in-person classes now have had their first meeting, and based on those meetings, I’m optimistic that my changes will be effective—on balance. But I have no illusions about it being easy to implement these changes well.

Above all, what’s going to be necessary is that I put in the work of responding creatively, week after week, to the needs of the students who are actually in the room—including, by the way, needs that may well be contradictory. Such contradictions are typical in a real-life classroom, not exceptional.

So in addition to seeking simplicity this semester, as I wrote last week, I’m also seeking a greater sense of presence. I’m trying to be better at adapting to what’s actually happening for my students—specific people in a specific time and place—rather than adhering to what I had planned or to any abstract ideological prescription somebody tries to impose on others’ classrooms. And, to some extent, I hope my students will be able to see that this is what’s happening.

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